When Arsenal stepped onto the field at Emirates Stadium on March 14, 2019 for the 2nd leg of the Europa League Round of 16 against Rennes, they did so with their backs to the wall. Already down 3-1 on aggregate, they needed at least 2 goals to get back into it and get through on away goals. However unbeknownst to anyone, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s star striker from Gabon, had something in mind for the tie. All he had to do was score at the right time.
In February 2018, Marvel Studios released a film that was a highly anticipated one for Black people around the world: Black Panther. The story of T’Challa and the Kingdom of Wakanda was a source of pride for Black people. The Wakanda salute, which entailed pounding your chest with your arms crossed in front of you like an X, was the power. Black people were universally linked by heritage, united by the Wakanda salute. Further unifying Black people everywhere was the film’s slogan and the rallying cry for Wakanda: “Wakanda Forever!”
That film resonated with Black people everywhere, especially in the United States and in Africa. It was a film that presented Africa as beautiful beyond belief, technologically advanced beyond its years, and a rich place where Black people reigned harmoniously. Above all, Wakanda was a place that had never been conquered or colonized by the Europeans. It was a nation of warriors, and T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, doubled as the Black Panther. Black Panther is the most popular Black superhero, one that finally represented on the movie screen and in real life. The actor who played Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, was perfect for the role and nailed the performance, making himself a hero. His meticulous care for the film and the role of T’Challa was because Boseman knew the importance and significance of the movie, which would come out during the heart of Black History Month. It was clearly a movie that Aubameyang connected with, just like it did for millions of other Black people. And he wanted to do something to link that harmonious power with the perfect moment in the match.
But first, they had to catch up. In the 5th minute of the match, Aubameyang scored to make the match 1-0 to Arsenal. The aggregate was still 3-2 to Rennes, but Arsenal had the moment. Knowing that his team was still behind in the matchup, there wasn’t much time for celebration. They had to keep the momentum going without giving up an away goal.
Ten minutes later, Ainsley Maitland-Niles scored the 2nd goal for Arsenal, and now things were interesting. It was 2-0 Arsenal in the game, 3-3 on aggregate, Arsenal with the away goal. They had to hold on, and they had to make sure that Rennes didn’t score. That created some tense times for the rest of the first half and the first part of the second half.
Aubameyang knew they needed one more, and he was determined to get it. In the 72nd minute, Sead Kolašinac was able to send in a great cross where all Aubameyang had to do was tap it past the keeper into the net.
Goal. 3-0 in the match, 4-3 Arsenal on aggregate. The comeback was complete. Aubameyang ran to the ad boards by the goal and reached over them. He had something ready, and now that they had the aggregate lead, he could unleash it. He pulls out a bag that has his power: a Black Panther mask.
As he puts on the mask, he jogs to the corner flag and throws up the Wakanda salute. He’s mobbed by his teammates, but he stops them just to make sure that the camera catches it. Instantly, that image circulates the sports globe.
Arsenal went on to win that match 3-0, advancing in the Europa League. After the match, Aubameyang told BT Sport what the headwear meant. “I needed a mask that would represent me,” he said. “It is a Black Panther and in Africa in Gabon we call the national team the Panther of Gabon. It represents me.” Sure enough, the Gabon national team is known as Les Panthères, or The Panthers. The federation’s crest include the face of a black panther. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was speaking to his people, but his message resonated with every Black person who saw it. Wakanda Forever.
On August 28, 2020, Chadwick Boseman passed away from stage 4 colon cancer. His death was a shock to the world, as he had acted for several years while secretly undergoing treatment and only telling a very small circle of people. None of his fellow actors in his many films he did knew he was doing his job while terminally ill. It was a blow to the heart of every Black person who enjoyed his movies, particularly Black Panther. The Black superhero was performed by a man who truly was a real life superhero, and he didn’t get a chance to get his flowers while he was here. He was beloved by millions, and the world was robbed of his talent far too soon.
The next day, Arsenal took the field for the Community Shield against Liverpool, the start to the season. Pierre-Emerick, who was heartbroken over the news of Boseman’s death wanted to make sure he was able to represent for his club and most especially for our fallen hero. 12 minutes into the match, Aubameyang scored to give Arsenal the early 1-0 lead, and he ran towards the corner flag, stopping to turn back towards the field and do the Wakanda salute.
It was to pay tribute to Boseman, the day after his passing. He celebrated with his teammates, this time his teammates leaving him solo so that his Wakanda salute could rule the day. It did. Arsenal ended up winning 5-4 on penalties to win the 2020 Community Shield. For Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Shield came second. Most important was honoring a fallen superhero that walked among us, that hero’s super powers being his ability to generate happiness in the hearts and souls of millions. Chadwick Boseman was that hero, and when Black people throw up that Wakanda salute from here until the end of time, it will give praise to our real life Black Panther, give hope to Black people everywhere, and continue to be a source of pride. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang channeled that energy into good, just like millions of Black people will continue to do when they hear that rallying cry ring out:
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.